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Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)
Pineapple Poll, complete ballet arr. Mackerras (1951) [43:13]
Symphony in E, Irish (1866) [35:13]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. 1-2 August 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570351 [78:26]


 


Highly enjoyable though this CD is, the coupling and order of presentation does Sullivan no favours. After the whirlwind pace of Pineapple Poll which brings together a huge number of tunes from Sullivanís operettas, his only symphony in its patient build-up and development of themes is in danger of seeming a slow burn. Better then to start at track 13. For this is a kind of anti-symphony in that it behaves in a populist and original manner within an orthodox symphonic frame. Even in the first movement introduction after a brass fanfare the strings beam gently up like the dawn. The Allegro first theme (2:26) David Lloyd-Jones treats as sensitively forlorn, a tight knit piece of Mendelssohnian angst, but the minor key is not sustained when the oboe starts a jollier and homelier second theme (3:30) whose second part has the violins rhapsodising (3:51). This, you feel, is where Sullivanís real sympathies lie. But itís a tribute to his skill that he maintains this ambivalence throughout the movement as if perfectly natural, first in the exposition repeat which Lloyd-Jones cunningly yet effectively takes more quietly and reflectively.

I compared the most recent recording, made in 2000 by the BBC Philharmonic/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9859). The comparative timings are:

Timings   

I

†II   

III

IV     

†Total

Lloyd-Jones

12:54

†7:25 

†6:18

†8:36

†35:13

Hickox

13:21

†7:13

†6:15

†9:08

†36:02

From the opening more solemn fanfare Hickoxís phrasing is smoother and a touch more expansive. He underplays the jollity of the second theme and even the violinsí rhapsodizing is viewed within an overall climate of unease. This makes for a more formal, structural clarity with a grimmer development and he saves the lyricism which Lloyd-Jones clarifies all along for a relaxed recapitulation.

In the slow movement Sullivan, whose father was a band master, shows an affectionate understanding of the poetic aspects of brass instruments. Its main theme opens on horns and alto trombone. Lloyd-Jones gives it a tender soft focus. Hickoxís brass are a little fuller in tone which makes them less noble. Hickox is more sensitive to dramatic colouring, Lloyd-Jones gives more focus to Sullivanís presentation of melody, particularly another passage again of violinsí sweet rhapsodizing (2:55), gently treated, where Hickox is soft and dreamy. Hickox brings sufficient edge to the section marked un poco agitato without Lloyd-Jonesís arguably moving on too quickly (tr. 14 3:29) but with Lloyd-Jones the principal theme returns on strings with a satisfyingly contrasted breadth and the clarinet bids it a long, florid farewell.

The scherzo is a peach of a movement, graced by a jaunty march first presented by the oboe, repeated by cellos who flirt with it by momentarily putting it in the minor while violins sigh expansively around before the full orchestra gives a hearty troop version. A jolly second theme emerges from stringsí pizzicato (tr. 15 2:03) which Lloyd-Jones makes a delighted scamper which becomes increasingly, though always dexterously, energetic to point a greater contrast at the trio (3:05) presided over by two cool, indolent clarinets to delicate string tracery. Lloyd-Jonesí scherzo is merrier than Hickoxís but the latter finds a more contrasted trio of ethereal fairy atmosphere.

In the finale Sullivan fuses a host of themes. Lloyd-Jonesí opening is all festive bounce and brio but the second theme (tr. 16 0:51) rises more gracefully and has a tenderly arching second strain (1:29) with horns again to the fore. Hickox is slightly steadier here, bringing more of a visionary quality. Lloyd-Jones goes for more sweetness and lightness yet still has some reflection. In a development that means business a third theme comes on oboe (2:50) in the minor with the first theme skittering in the background, but you sense it will eventually shine in the major. Hickox makes the transition a little smoother by making this themeís first appearance in the recapitulation more lyrical where Lloyd-Jones (6:32) isnít quite as relaxed until its appearance on full strings. Lloyd-Jones whips up the coda effectively from 7:33 and if triumphant trombones then overpower vaulting high strings, thatís Sullivanís fault and better than Hickox taming them a bit. Both are recorded in glowing sound, the Naxos a little more forward, Chandos more spread with a denser bass.

Naxos understandably go for the more immediately attractive Pineapple Poll to begin this CD. This is a whistle stop Sullivan tour, Charles Mackerrasís brilliant quick change medley of tunes from the operettas and modernization of Sullivanís orchestration. The prevailing mood is one of confidence and swagger with some outlandish moments in the brass that make you think of Malcolm Arnold. What would Sullivan have thought? I think heíd be tickled that his melodies had taken on a new life for a ballet and appreciate Mackerrasís extension of his own practice of putting two tunes together. But in the opening scene he might be disconcerted by the appearance of the xylophone and generally vamped up percussion and be surprised at the alacrity of the trombones in echoing the theme. We just enjoy the high spirits.

But I feel the quieter moments are closer to Sullivanís sensibility. Like the soulful clarinet theme (tr. 2 1:01) of Jasperís infatuation as Pollís solo becomes a Pas de Deux with him and the strings take this up with Tchaikovskian ardour while Pollís indifference persists in her theme Lloyd-Jones decently keeps in the background. Or the strings depicting the simpering girls (tr. 3) melting before the brazen swagger of Captain Belayeís solo and a hell-for-leather side drum at the end. In the Pas de Trois (tr. 4) the Captain gets a comely waltz with his fiancťe but her chatterbox auntís theme is superimposed musically as well as her stage presence.

I compared Charles Mackerrasís 1982 recording, his latest of four, with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Decca 473 653-2). With a brighter recording heís more bracing in the heady material and, a touch slower, more romantic in the quieter passages. Lloyd-Jones flows more in these, but still keeps them tender without being sentimental. The big tunes sing with more density of feeling and the warmer Naxos recording helps where Mackerras, with a fuller body of strings, is more assertive.

Scene 2, the shortest of the three, is the most memorable and moving. This is partly because Pollís solo (tr. 6) with its encased in moonlight effect via trumpet calls, idyllic feeling and later melodrama is from one source, Iolanthe. Lloyd-Jones gets a softer, duskier night scene focus but Mackerrasís melodrama is more tense. Even more emotive power comes from Jasperís solo (tr. 7), a tune to which Lloyd-Jones brings real nobility of affection when given to full strings, whose origin, ĎO goddess wiseí in Princess Ida, is not that familiar. It expresses all the poignancy of Jasperís depth of unreturnable love seeing Pollís discarded clothes and thinking her drowned.

Scene 3 achieves a happy ending via a Sailorsí Drill (tr. 8) from Lloyd-Jones of† gusto if not Mackerrasís devil-may-care quality. For Pollís solo (tr. 9) Lloyd-Jones has more winsome, lilting cellos on a smaller, more intimate scale than Mackerrasís exquisite shaping. But even finer is the delicately serene lyricism with just tinges of sadness Lloyd-Jones catches for the reconciliation (tr. 11), a reminder of how sensitively Sullivan conveys such a mood of present contentment obtained with difficulty and what a lovely tune ĎThe battleís roar is overí from Ruddigore is. Lloyd-Jones brings a more slender, comely fragility to it, lighter in tone than Mackerras blithe but more chirrupy manner. Then itís a breezy Grand Finale (tr. 12) with barnstorming Yeomen of the Guard close in which auntie stands tall as Britannia. Lloyd-Jones by turns provides zip and charm. His orchestra is clearly having fun as well.

I wouldnít say Lloyd-Jones outclasses the competition which has its own character but his interpretations stands their corner and honour Sullivanís melodic gifts. This good value CD does have the advantage in price which will I hope encourage many to become acquainted with Sullivanís symphony.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 


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